HLS graduate Harvey Silverglate was on campus recently to explain why he’s not happy with his alma mater. Apparently Harvard has been killing free speech over the past couple of decades. It’s been all downhill since his heroic days defending student protesters in 1967, Silverglate said.

So what was his first example of this grave oppression we students face? The HLS policy against sexual harassment. Seriously, that’s what he said. It was implemented in response to an apparently pretty reprehensible satirical essay, which to Silverglate is pretty damning evidence that the whole policy is insidious censorship. But the administration took no disciplinary action against the authors, and the piece wouldn’t have fallen under the policy.

So where’s the oppression? Who knows!

A lot of his examples are sorely lacking in context, if not outright misleading. Larry Summers, for example, wasn’t forced out of Harvard because of his sexist comments; he was forced out because people thought he was a shitty and possibly ethically-challenged administrator. The only direct result of Summers’ sexism was a vote of no confidence — a thoroughly democratic result, I might add. What Silverglate doesn’t seem to get is that the same free speech rights that give Summers the right to mouth off give the rest of us the right to shout him down. The Summers saga wasn’t an example of the suppression of free speech — it was free speech in action. Silverglate’s position is especially strange when you consider that his clients in 1967 (students speaking out against a school administrator) are the objects of his scorn in 2013 (students and faculty speaking out against a school administrator).

There’s a huge difference between political speech being punished by authority figures and community-enforced norms. When an editor of the Harvard Law Review suggested that black people might be genetically predisposed to be less intelligent than people of other races, she was roundly and rightly criticized until she released a self-flagellating apology, but otherwise she got through it unscathed. Why shouldn’t the community denounce views that it rejects? If I think a position is not only intellectually but morally wrong, why shouldn’t I say so?

Most recently, Silverglate was disappointed that The Crimson supported the decision to remove economist Subramanian Swamy from the Harvard faculty. But again, that editorial was asking for the same thing Silverglate’s student-protester clients wanted in 1967 — an administration and faculty that responded to their complaints and represented their values. It’s a little hard to understand what Silverglate’s upset about. This process, in which an authority figure speaks, the community responds, and in the end the university actually reacts — isn’t that how free speech is supposed to work?

Maybe Silverglate just doesn’t like the end result of free speech, after all.

I think what Silverglate opposes, ultimately, is the idea that a university would adopt particular “values” at all. (For example, Harvard’s suggestion in freshman orientation that students be kind to one another is, in Silverglate’s mind, an insidious “attitudinal re-education program.”) For him, free speech itself is the only legitimate value. That explains why he doesn’t realize that, for example, the response to Larry Summers’ sexist comments was as much free speech as the initial statement: he rejects the very idea of a university community conclusively choosing one conclusion over another. That’s a pretty nihilistic thought. If speech doesn’t lead to conversation, and conversation doesn’t lead to conclusions, and conclusions don’t lead to action, what are we really accomplishing with all of this?

Sure, reasonable minds can disagree about whether the values the Harvard community has settled on maximize free speech. I’d argue that encouraging kindness and vigorously opposing racism and sexism (and so on) will promote a wider range of voices; Silverglate seems to think that meanness, racism, and sexism are not obstacles to free speech but are themselves voices that must be respected. But in the end, what Silverglate’s history really shows is not the death of free speech, but the development of a university administration that at least tries to respect the values of Harvard community. And while that development has not been without missteps, it’s undoubtedly progress.

 

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